“I’d like to believe that,” she said finally, slowly. Her Dresden accent was as harsh as ever, yet that harshness was oddly smoothed, he thought. Or perhaps the word he really wanted was “gentled,” instead. “I’d like to. But we’ve believed people on Dresden before. In fact, it took us far too long to realize we shouldn’t have. We’ve accomplished a lot in the last couple of generations, but only because people like Minister Krietzmann realized we had to do it ourselves. Realized that no one else gave a solitary damn what happened to us.

            “Don’t get me wrong.” She shook her head, and her voice was calmer, as if she were reasserting control over her own passions. “There’s no reason why anyone off Dresden should have given us a free ride. We understand that. Charity begins at home, they say, and Dresden is our home, not Rembrandt’s, or San Miguel’s, or Manticore’s. It’s not so much that no one came and invested in free clinics or schools for us, but that we had to fight other people tooth and nail to somehow hang onto enough of the profit of our own labor, our own industrial structure – such as it was, and what there was of it – to begin building our own clinics and schools.

            “We’d figured that out by the time the RTU finally got around to us, which is why one of the things we insisted on, if they wanted trade deals with us, was that they had to clean their own house where people like the Van Scheldts were concerned — had to put at least some limits on the kind of crap they could get away with. And, to Mr. Van Dort’s credit, I suppose, the RTU did just that. Of course, the extent of the limits they could impose was limited by the domestic pull of their own oligarchs who were already invested in Dresden, but they still managed to do a lot. Which is probably one of the reasons Van Scheldlt is such a pain where I’m concerned, I suppose, since his family got whacked harder than most . . . since they’d been even worse than most. But even with Van Dort on our side — and I think he really is” she sounded almost as if she wished she could believe otherwise, Gervais thought “– we’re still a long way from where we could have been. It’s hard to stand on your own two feet when someone else owns the carpet and keeps trying to jerk it out from under you.”

            The party’s background noise seemed distant, like the sound of surf rolling up onto a far-off beach. It was no longer part of Gervais’ world – or hers, he realized. It was no more than a frame, something which enclosed her intensity, whose contrasting banality underscored the raw honesty in her voice.

            “That’s one thing that isn’t going to be happening again,” he told her quietly. “Not on our watch. Her Majesty won’t stand for it – not for a heartbeat.”

            “I hope you’ll pardon me for saying that Dresden’s going to be taking that with a grain of salt, too, Lieutenant.” Her voice was flatter, no less passionate but with something far worse than anger, he thought. It was flat with the bitterness of experience. With disillusionment so deep, so intense, that it couldn’t – dared not – expose itself to the risk of optimism.

            He felt a stab of quick, fierce anger of his own – anger directed at her for daring to prejudge the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Daring to prejudge him, simply because he’d been fortunate enough to be born into a wealthier, less constrained world than she. Who was she to look at him with such distrust? Such bitterness and anger born of the actions of others? He’d told her nothing but the simple truth, and she’d rejected it. It was as if she’d looked him straight in the eye and told him that he’d lied to her.

            Yet even as he thought that, even as the anger flared, he knew it was at least as irrational – and unfair – as anything she might have felt.

            “It’s obvious I have even more to learn about the Talbott Quadrant than I thought I did,” he said after several moments. “In fact, at the moment, I’m feeling pretty stupid for not having realized it had to be that way.” He shook his head. “Trying to get some sort of ‘quick fix’ on seventeen different inhabited star systems is guaranteed to be an exercise in futility, isn’t it? I guess nobody’s really immune to the idea that everyone else has to be ‘just like them’ even when intellectually they know better.”

            She was looking at him now with a slightly puzzled expression, and he grinned crookedly at her.

            “I promise I’ll try to do my homework better, Ms. Boltitz. I know Lady Gold Peak will be doing the same, and I don’t doubt that Baroness Medusa’s been working at it the entire time she’s been out here. But while I’m doing that, do you think you could do a little homework on the Star Kingdom? I’m not going to say Manticore doesn’t have its own share of warts, because God knows we do. And I don’t blame you a bit for taking the Star Kingdom’s promises with – what was it you called it? ‘A grain of salt’? – but when Queen Elizabeth gives her word to someone, she keeps it. We keep it for her.”

            “That sounds good. And I’d like to believe it,” she replied. “I doubt you have any idea how much I’d like to believe it. And if a part of me didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t be working with Minister Krietzmann to try and make it be true. But when you’ve been kicked often enough, it’s hard to trust someone you don’t even know. Especially when he’s wearing the biggest, heaviest boots you’ve ever seen in your life.”

            “I’ll try to bear that in mind, too,” he assured her. “Do you think you can give me – give us – at least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, as well?” He smiled at her. “At least for a little while, long enough to see how well we do at living up to our promises?”

            Helga looked at that smile, and its warmth, the empathy and the concern – the personal concern – behind it amazed her. He meant it, she realized, and wondered how he could possibly be that naïve. How could he believe, even for a moment, that the oligarchs who must infest an economic power like the Star Kingdom of Manticore would care for a moment about any political “promises” someone else had made?

            Yet he did. He might be – almost certainly was – wrong, yet he wasn’t lying. There were many things in those green eyes that she couldn’t read, but deceit wasn’t one of them. And so, despite herself, she felt a small stir of hope. Felt herself daring to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, he might not be wrong.

            Bitter experience and the cynicism of self preservation roused instantly, horrified by the possibility of opening such a breach in her defenses. She started to speak quickly, to make her rejection of his overture’s false hope clear. But that wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

            “All right, Lieutenant,” she heard herself say instead. “I’ll do my ‘homework’ while you do yours. And at the end of the day, we’ll see who’s right. And,” she realized she was actually smiling slightly, “believe it or not, I hope it turns out you are.”